In Ariel Gore’s Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness is a chapter entitled, “if you’re hokey and you know it, clap your hands,” in which Gore explores the idea of gratitude, its effectiveness in improving mood, and why it’s sometimes so difficult to express.
Apparently, there are studies that have shown that keeping a gratitude journal for six weeks can increase happiness and reduce depressive symptoms. Results could be seen in as little as three weeks. Trouble is, expressing gratitude can feel uncomfortable, childish, and hokey, as Gore experienced when she tried to keep her own gratitude journal.
Gore presents two possible reasons for this hokieness. First, for many of us, our primary experience with expressing gratitude was as children when we wrote thank-you notes that may or may not have been sincere to relatives for gifts we may or may not have liked. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing thank-you notes, but many of us are stuck in that idea that saying thank you is something childish and sometimes disingenuous. Doing so as adults can feel insincere, even when it is sincere.
The other explanation Gore suggests is that in order to express gratitude, we must admit that we’ve depended on someone for something. As Americans, we value self-reliance over pretty much anything else. Admitting dependence by thanking someone is in conflict with the view of ourselves as self-reliant. Gore writes about her experience as a single teen mom. Everyone around her was waiting for her to fail, and she became determined not only to succeed, but to succeed without anyone’s help. “A relationship based on someone’s idea that he or she was going to rescue me, I decided, was worse than no relationship at all,” Gore remembers.
As a stay-at-home mom, I make no money of my own and am dependent upon my husband’s income. My husband has a Ph.D. and is gainfully employed full-time as a scientist, both things that easily fall within the range of activities that are recognized by our culture as “valuable.” My job—caring for and educating our children—is not really recognized in our culture as a valuable activity, at least not in the same way that my husband’s job is. He can publish results, he gets a performance review, he can quantify his contribution to his organization. There aren’t many measurable results I can show for my work. I can’t think of any at this moment.
We’re both prone to looking at “going to work” as his job and “everything else” as my job. Doing “everything else” is beyond my abilities, but I still labor under the illusion that I am—or should be—self-reliant in my role. When the house isn’t clean and dinner isn’t made and the children and I aren’t in a sunny mood when my husband gets home, I feel like I’m not holding up my end of our arrangement. He is great about helping me, but I have trouble thanking him for his help because it would be admitting that I’m doubly dependent on him, not only for financial support but also for help doing “my job.” I don’t feel grateful to him; I feel beholden to him.
But this is just how I view our situation in my darker moments. In reality, there isn’t “his job” and “my job.” In fact, except for the part of his work that results in a paycheck, it’s not about “jobs” at all. We are working as a team to meet the needs of our family as a whole. We each have a vocation and an avocation that contributes to the welfare of our family. His vocation is his career, on which he spends the bulk of his time and for which he happens to receive a paycheck. His avocation is working around the house and caring for the children, reading The Economist magazine, watching football, and running. My vocation is caring for and educating the children and working around the house. My avocation is writing, reading, and volunteer work. As my children get older, I expect the balance between my vocation and my avocation to shift until their positions are reversed. From this perspective, he’s not “helping me” by working around the house and caring for the kids; he’s contributing to our family. In the same way, I’m not “helping him” by making it possible for him to work towards his career. Who makes money and who doesn’t really doesn’t figure into it.We are each making space for the growth of our family through the growth of each member as an individual. I don’t need to thank him for helping me; I can thank him for the ways in which he supports our family. With any luck, our kids will grow up with this sense of cooperation and mutual respect.
At the end of the chapter, Gore shares a statement that she taped to the front of her gratitude journal: “I can take care of myself AND I can rely on others.” I would go one step further and say, even as I take care of myself, I am relying on others. Purchasing food, driving my car, even flushing the toilet, there is nothing I do that doesn’t involve other people at some point in the process. I can either admit my dependence on others and feel grateful to be part of a larger system, or I can insist on my self-reliance and cut myself off from relationships with those with whom I interact, directly and indirectly.
I started out this post with the intention of talking a little about gratitude, why Ariel Gore thinks it’s a problem for some people, why I think it’s a problem for myself, and then soliciting feedback from others about the idea of keeping a gratitude journal. I enjoy when my journey takes me through territory that wasn’t on the map.
I still would like your feedback, though. What’s your experience with gratitude? What feelings arise for you when you express gratitude? Have you kept a gratitude journal? Do you feel hokey saying, “thank you”?